‘Not really a green country any more’

Posted by admin on Sep 4th, 2009

Zoe Cormier, Globe and Mail, Sep. 04, 2009

‘Blame Canada, blame Canada – it seems like everything’s gone wrong since the tar sands came along,” several hundred South Park -inspired protesters sang outside the Canadian Embassy here this week. “Blame Canada, blame Canada, they’re not really a green country any more.” Barely a day after the news that China’s national petroleum company has invested $1.9-billion in the mammoth Athabasca oil sands, the demonstrators spent a tumultuous hour outside the embassy, handing out flyers calling on Canada to “respect aboriginal and treaty rights” by shutting the entire project down. The giant banners they carried declared: “Tar sands = dirtiest oil on earth” and “Tar sands oil is blood oil.”

According to protester Danny Chivers, “There is still this perception in the British public of Canada as exemplary in environmental matters, and very little awareness of what is going on in the tar sands.”

Mr. Chivers is a long-time participant in the Climate Camp, an annual gathering of British environmental activists and the source of all the ruckus at the embassy.

Looking to Copenhagen

But the ruckus is meant to be more than a one-day wonder. It marked the start of a campaign to raise public awareness and to target companies, such as British Petroleum, with a stake in the sands and the banks that back them.

To lend the campaign some extra muscle, four representatives from first nations communities, including Fort Chipewyan just downstream from the oils sands’ tailing ponds, flew to London to spend a week with the campers and lead the protests.

“What is going on in the tar sands is a form of genocide – but we aren’t leaving our homeland,” declared Lionel Lepine of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, adding that many friends and family have died from rare cancers.

From the embassy, the crowd marched a few blocks to the headquarters of British Petroleum for another protest, and a live news feed on BBC.

Labelling BP “corporate climate criminals,” Clayton Thomas-Muller, of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, led the call for “climate justice,” then sang a traditional sundance song.

Jess Worth, a Climate Camp participant and main organizer of the Canadians’ visit, told the delegation (which also included Heather Milton-Lightening is from the Pasqua First Nation in Saskatchewan and George Poitras of Alberta’s Mikisew Cree): “This is no longer your struggle. This is ours, too, because we are implicated, and we have a responsibility to get BP out of the tar sands.”

Choosing BP as a target was a strategic decision, she later explained. Shell is much more active in the sands, but BP is just starting to make inroads. The protesters believe they have six months to persuade the company to pull out of its planned “Sunrise” project.

To that end, the campaigners will use the run-up to the UN Copenhagen Climate Conference in December to arrange speaking tours for the First Nation delegates and to press for action on the part of high-profile British retailers and the Royal Bank of Scotland, which since the economic downturn is now 75-per-cent owned by British taxpayers, Ms. Worth says, “but has not changed their investment strategies.”

Does the campaign stand a chance of success?

Greenpeace failed recently to persuade shareholders in Norway’s state-controlled oil company to drop out of the oil sands, but plans to try again. And the Climate Camp has been “very effective at pushing an issue up the national agenda,” says Mr. Chivers.

Two years ago, the target was the third runway proposed for Heathrow airport. Hundreds of activists occupied the site, and succeeded in pushing the issue into a parliamentary debate. Now the government may decide not to go ahead.

Last year, the focus was on the Kingsnorth power plant as a way of opposing the government’s plans to expand coal-generated power.

This year, with London and the financial institutions and petrochemical companies based there in the crosshairs, the first nations leaders proved to be what Ms. Worth calls the surprise “rock stars” of the camp. “We always say we’re part of a global movement, but before now it has always been more symbolic. It was really important for us to meet them, not just as the victims of the tar sands, but also as inspiring leaders.”

According to Mr. Chivers, “We often talk about how climate change will impact on human rights, and we got to hear about it from people first hand … We don’t have much of a sense in this country of indigenous struggles.”

‘A humble feeling’

Rock stars or not, the visiting Canadians were heartened by the reception they received.

After the demo, they met opposition MP Simon Hughes, who will lead a parliamentary meeting on the oil sands in November – likely the first time the British Parliament has discussed the issue.

Heading toward Buckingham Palace and planning to take a sight-seeing tour, Mr. Lepine said of the protesters:

“What caught me off guard the most was that they were really interested. If Canadians won’t help us, there are other people here who will.”

Mr. Thomas-Muller agreed, although “it is sad to me, the disconnectedness of the average British citizen to their imperial conquest of the Earth.”

And yet, “I’m glad people were so passionate, and ready to join the struggle – it was a humble feeling to see so many people …taking up this cause.”

Zoe Cormier is a Canadian writer living in Britain.

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